Land Journal: April 2014

In August 2013 I moved to Plainfield, Massachusetts, to the foot of Deer Hill/West Mountain, on the edge of the valley of the Westfield River. The journal below is my story of getting to know my new home: the land that stretches up the side of the mountain behind my house.

April 29, 2014: A Cool, Damp Wind

A cool, damp wind flows up the valley from the east, sliding over the hills and bringing with it gray clouds and moisture from the ocean. The leafless trees let the wind reach down to the forest floor, stirring last year’s leaves, sliding over my skin and raising goose bumps. But the ground is getting warmer; my bare feet no longer feel numb. The dry leaves and damp earth are soft underfoot.

A lone chickadee plaintively sings his, two-note song, high-low, high-low, over and over again, as if commenting on the gray, November-like weather. Down in the valley a barred owl hoots briefly. Then a turkey gobbles once and falls silent too. A yellow-bellied sapsucker (I think) in a tree just above me is livelier, hammering on the tree and sounding his wheezy, nasal call. Through it all, the chickadee keeps up his song. In a patch of bare earth too steep to hold leaves a tiny yellow flower is blooming, maybe dwarf cinquefoil; it’s no more than an inch or two tall and tucked in next to a sheltering rock.

April 28, 2014: Cold Air, Warm Spring Sun

The air is cold but the sun feels warm on my skin. There’s still lots of sunlight making it down to the forest floor because aside from tiny flowers on some of the trees, the branches are still bare; soaring upwards; the bark shining in the sun. In outward appearance the trees have changed little since December, but somehow they feel different in the spring sunshine: more alive and vital, no longer dormant and frozen.

Taking advantage of the fleeting interval of warm sun at the forest floor before the trees leaf out, a deep purple trillium is blooming; its three purple leaves set against three delicately-veined green leaves. And other small, spring flowers are getting ready to bloom as well: green shoots pushing up through the dead leaves. A few tiny fiddleheads are emerging as well, preparing to uncurl into ferns.

In the pond, the wood frog eggs have been joined by spotted salamander eggs, milky-looking relative to the nearly clear wood frog eggs, all gelatinous masses floating in the water. Soon there will be lots of new wood frogs and salamanders.

April 26, 2014: Cold Spring Rain

A cold, raw 37 degree rain sends water trickling down my back and dripping from my hair to run down my face. The wet ground is cold and my bare feet grow numb as I walk. But the wet forest is resplendent. Leaves in many shades of brown glisten on the forest floor amidst patches of bright green moss on the logs and rocks. The hemlock boughs are a deep, vibrant green amongst the wet, nearly black trunks. The beech leaves are translucent and nearly the color of my skin. Glistening drops of water hang on every branch. The wet birch bark seems to shine in the dull, gray light. Looking off through a stand of small trees not far behind my house, it’s as if the forest has been dipped in burnished silver.

April 25, 2014: Soft around the Edges

The air is cold and the trees are black against the deep-blue dawn sky. The crescent moon slowly fades away as sunrise nears and the eastern horizon turns to orange. The forest is still largely brown and gray but some of the trees, silhouetted against the morning sky, are turning soft around the edges as flowers bloom on the branch-tips. These are not showy flowers like what we’ll see soon on the apple trees. Indeed they hardly look like flowers, but they are flowers none-the-less, and lovely to see. The beeches, red maples, aspens, and yellow and black birches are all flowering; not every tree, just some, often the tallest. Down lower, close to the ground, buds are swelling and a few are even bursting open to reveal green leaves, on some of the small shrubs growing under the trees.

The water in the quarry is cold too, but it’s glorious to stand at the edge, pause to prepare myself, lean forward and dive in. The water slides past me and green light filters down from above, lighting my way. For five months, all through the winter, the water in the quarry was black under the ice. No longer!

April 22, 2014: The Ice is Gone!

The quarry is free of ice! It froze over for the winter on November 23 so it was ice-covered for almost exactly five months.

April 21, 2014: Swimming

The hole in the ice through which I’ve been taking my morning dip all winter is gone, melted into open water! Off in the southwest corner of the quarry is the last bit of ice, slowly shrinking away. For the first time in months I can do more than just duck under. Easing myself into the cold water I swim down the length of the quarry, feeling the cold water slide past me.

April 20, 2014: Ice

Yesterday afternoon half the quarry was clear of ice and dozens of wood frogs were floating at the surface, croaking vigorously and mating prolifically. This morning what was open water is covered with a thin skim of ice. Even an hour after sunrise the air is sharply chilly and the sky’s a deep wintry blue. But birds are calling all through the forest, four and five at the same time, filled with spring energy, like the frogs.

April 16, 2014: Snow!

The sun came up this morning on a forest once again winter-white with two inches of new snow. The tree branches are creaking and rattling in the cold northwest wind that’s blowing through the trees and sending snow swirling in the sun. I could be annoyed at this return to winter after glorious spring days of running barefoot and naked through the forest, but setting aside my expectations for what I think the weather should be on April 16, the forest really is beautiful this morning, and I know the snow won’t last long. The ground is soft under the snow. Spring is still moving in the soil. The sun is sparkling on the stream.

April 15, 2014: Spring!

Less than a minute into my walk I come upon yellow flowers, a few inches tall, pushing up through last year’s dead leaves and plant stalks. It’s coltsfoot, scattered along the edge of a small clearing; one of the first places to be free of snow. And I’m 45 minutes and 1½ miles into my walk before I come upon any snow. Tucked in amongst a cluster of fallen trees near the stream is a small pocket still melting away. I scramble over the wet tree trunks to touch snow, maybe for the last time until next winter.

A spring rain begins in fits and starts and then falls more steadily, dripping from my hair and running down my back as I make my way down through the woods. The snow will be gone by evening.

The ground in the forest is wet and muddy, but warm enough to go barefoot for the first time since last fall. The soft leaves and earth under my feet feel glorious, but my feet do need some toughening up after a winter in boots.

There’s still ice on the quarry but it’s melting back from the edges and won’t last much longer. As I’m getting close to the quarry I hear what initially sound like ducks and I then realize are frogs, in the outflow pool at the entrance to the quarry. And floating in the water nearby is a huge mass of frog eggs. Spring is truly here. In another couple of days my morning dip in the pond will no longer involve going through a hole in the ice.

April 11, 2014: Senses

My bare feet sink into the wet leaves and the earth below gives a little, receiving and holding my feet gently. Raindrops speckle my back but then a cool breeze slides over me, drying my skin again. Senses hidden away all winter came back out today. I can’t go barefoot for long; there are still snow patches and the ground is cold, even frozen in places, but it feels lovely to be back in direct contact with the earth, rain and wind.

April 10, 2014: Fading Winter

Through most of the forest icy drifts of melting snow are rare but the woods are still countless shades of brown and gray, beautiful in a quiet way, especially in the morning sun, but very much the colors of winter. Last year’s pale, thin beech leaves still glow in the sun and vibrate in the breeze. The only greens are moss and evergreens and some ferns, flattened against the ground but still holding their color from last fall. Birds are singing all through the forest, but most signs of spring’s growth and life are remain hidden, like the sap flowing in the trees, moving under the bark, up from the roots into the branches, ready to nourish this year’s still-hidden leaves. A gray fox patters through the trees, his footsteps noisy on last year’s fallen leaves. The sun climbs higher into a brilliant blue sky.

April 9, 2014: The Stream, the Snow

The liquid waters of the stream, ever-moving, never silent, weave and flow down past the cold, still, soundless snow. Stream and snow both shine in the sun but the light on the stream sparkles, flickers, jumps from ripple to ripple, while on the light the snow shifts slowly, subtly at the pace of the earth’s rotation, the sun’s slow progress across the sky, the shifting shadows of the trees marking the progress of the day.

A stream such as this has often been described as “hurrying” (probably even by me!). But at least today, even though it’s brimming with snowmelt, there’s no sense of hurry. The water falls quickly over small cascades but then slows as it bends around rocks, turns back into rippling eddies, and becomes measured, stately, calm in the longest pools; then splashes down another small cascade. Its progress is purposeful but not rushed; abiding always by the laws of physics but creating beauty, magic and mystery none-the-less. I could study the patterns it makes for hours; each bend and pool in the stream holds something new. And the snow is “endless” too; melting into infinitely varied forms: wrapping around rocks and trees, slowly melting back to revealing the moss and leaves and twigs below.

April 8, 2014: Water

Fog slides through the treetops. Water saturates the air, drips from the branches, and falls from the clouds. Water flows from the melting snow, stands in pools on the forest floor, and runs through the leaves and needles down towards the stream. Even here in the thick forest the snow is slowly giving way to bare ground. The sun is hidden in the clouds but sudden changes in the light level tell me it’s not too far away; just hidden by fog sliding up over the hills and through the trees. Running water and fog alike flow over the land today.

April 6, 2014: Return of the Summer Stream

The stream water is sparkling and clear. The pebbles on the bottom shimmer in the sunlight; so different from the winter when the water, seen through holes in the snow, looked black as a night sky in January. The water is still icy cold and the forest floor is still white with snow, right down to the edges of the stream, but the stream itself looks gloriously summery this morning.

April 5, 2014: An Owl, Slowly Retreating Snow

The calls of a barred owl reverberate through the forest, an exhilarating sound, transfixing and electrifying me as the owl slowly moves off the east, calling as he goes. With the owl gone, the forest is filled with the sweet familiar calls of a flock of chickadees, clear and bright on this foggy, still morning.

Down in the stream valley, snow still covers the ground, lying a foot deep in places. Up on the hemlock ridge each tree stands in a small island of bare ground surrounded by white. I can see the imprints left by my snowshoes, back in February when the snow was still deep and soft. Further up, under the beeches and oaks, snow and bare ground interweave in a complex pattern, like some great abstract painting or the dense network of lakes in the Canadian north. Through the middle a small stream trickles down off the mountain, heading for the Westfield River roaring in the distance.

April 3, 2014: Between Winter and Spring

The sun shines right through last year’s beech leaves. They’ll hold to the trees for just a few more weeks. There’s still deep snow in many places but there’s also bare ground, covered only with last year’s fallen leaves. The temperature is below freezing at sunrise, but the sun’s light is warm. Fifteen inches of ice cover the quarry pond and a skim of new ice formed overnight on the hole where I take my morning dip, but the streams run free. Brown hills roll off into the distance, warmed by the sun but just as brown as they’ve been for nearly half a year. It’s hard to call up in my mind what they’ll look like in a few short weeks.

April 2, 2014: Spring’s Slow Progress

Low, gray clouds fill the sky, hiding the far horizon and looking dense and dark until the sun shines through briefly; just a pale glowing disk but a sign that the clouds are only one layer deep and might break up more as the sun climbs higher.

Poking up through the snow, like islands of spring emerging out of winter, are patches of rich, luxuriant green moss. The hair cap moss, like a miniature forest with delicate hair-like fronds sticking up through carrying the spore capsules, looks not at all like it’s been buried for months under feet of snow and ice.

The snow is turning softer and less icy: spring snow yielding to the rain and sun. My feet break through more often now, making the walking slower and more tiring but I know the snow will be gone soon.

Flock after flock of Canada geese fly by in long ragged v’s, heading northwest below the clouds, honking loudly as they go.

April 1, 2014: Cold Spring Morning

Hard, icy snow all through the forest lower down, near the stream, gives way to broad patches of bare leaves higher up near my sunrise lookout. The frozen, frost-covered leaves crunch underfoot and are nearly as slippery as the snow in places, but still speak richly of spring. The sound of flowing water permeates the forest even on this cold morning. Small icicles hang down from the tips of the beech leaves, sparkling in the sun, along with the drops of frozen water all along the tree branches. A robin sings boldly from the treetops, his beautiful, warbling song bringing back memories of warm summer mornings, the air hazy with humidity and insects thrumming in the tall grass.

Go to March 2014